By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
Public Service and National Insurance Board Minister Brensil Rolle defended a reduction in unemployment benefits to $100 a week yesterday, insisting “We’re doing the best we can.”
He said: “We realise that it is not perhaps what individuals have been accustomed to or what they have been making but you got to also take into context that we’ve been doing this now for six months and we’ve been making payments to individuals for this period and we must be assured that basically we started (at) $200 a week and it has reduced to $150 and now it’s to $100.
“I hear the frustration as well from some individuals and I say we hear your cry and we know it’s tough, but we too are taking the position that we must do some things and one of the things we are doing is providing some form of income support to families that may be out of work.”
The board has paid out more than $160m in benefits and assistance cheques to unemployed workers directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with over $12m spent towards Hurricane Dorian victims to date.
Mr Rolle revealed the figures during his ministry’s press conference yesterday when he noted that the organisation’s total expenditure towards both Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19’s initiatives has amounted to $176m.
While giving a full breakdown of the payments expended by the agency, Mr Rolle said NIB has spent $91.6m in unemployment benefit payments to 37,000 beneficiaries since the onset of this pandemic.
As it relates to the government’s own unemployment benefit programme, he added that $56.1m has been spent towards that initiative so far to over 30,000 persons, with $15.6m paid out directly to self-employed people.
The programme, which has now been extended until December, will allow for recipients to receive $100 instead of $150 per week for a maximum of 13 weeks.
Many have since criticised the reduction in payments, noting the funds as being barely enough to purchase much needed supplies for people and their families.
Yesterday, Mr Rolle acknowledged the frustrations of Bahamians, but noted the government is doing all it can within the limited resources it has to provide as much help to those negatively affected by the health crisis.
According to Mr Rolle, over 7,000 Hurricane Dorian victims in Abaco and Grand Bahama received unemployment payments from NIB, amounting in total to $12.5m.
He added the programme was also funded by the government. Meanwhile, some $90m has been also paid in retirement benefits and grants for old age pensioners.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been numerous complaints over delayed payments from NIB, with some claiming they have yet to receive assistance from the agency.
Addressing the issues yesterday, Mr Rolle said some workers had not received the payments in a timely manner due to some employers’ failing to pay NIB contributions on behalf of their employees.
Yesterday, NIB director Dr Nicola Virgill-Rolle said the agency has established an aggressive position on the issue, adding that officials will go after employers who have failed to pay workers’ NIB contributions.
“We have made compliance and going after delinquent employers a very high priority at the board. We have developed new tools which allows management to understand and to see those customers which are delinquent and to be able to set up former billings for those customers,” she said.
“We have re-tooled our Inspectorate Department to really focus during this period where they are not doing onsite inspections or in delinquencies and so this is a very important aspect with the pandemic.”
“Every Bahamian has seen how important contribution compliance with the NIB contributions really is. We’ve had good support. Our inspectors have reached out to the delinquent employers in terms of bringing their accounts back up in order. But that will be a very high priority for us.”
Officials also cited verification issues as the reason why some claims were delayed.
“NIB found that notwithstanding public announcements, claimants were not verifying their continued unemployment and so claims that were processed in the V3 systems were being suspended,” Mr Rolle continued.
“NIB’s V3 system also suspended thousands of claims where it found contributions in the system past the reported last day of work. NIB’s IT and customer service departments worked to address this so legitimate claims could be paid directly.”